Tag Archives: Christianity

Tender: On Compassion and Evolving Worldviews

The older I get, the more my heart softens. 

If you told a 15-year old me that would happen, I would be horrified. Softness and vulnerability were not things I valued. My Christian high school trained me and my peers to stand firm on our beliefs and refute the beliefs of others. Whenever we learned about other worldviews (including through a class that segmented the complexities of human thinking into either “Christian,” “Humanism,” “New Age,” or “Marxism”), the goal was to understand the enemy. Compassion was not an important piece of that. Pity, yes, that was an acceptable reaction. Mostly, we studied so we could learn how to debate someone and enforce our views. 

Compassion and pity are very different.

To me, compassion is empathetic. It’s a desire to understand and alleviate suffering because all people are worthy of dignity and respect, no matter who they are or what they believe. Pity is condescending. It’s something reserved for those who are “less than.” It’s also passive. It doesn’t encourage action on the part of the person who feels pity, or at least not an action where the other person is an equal participant. 

In school, I could be good at debates, but only when I suppressed my true emotions. While ‘appeals to emotion’ were valuable in debates, they were very calculated. Their purpose was to manipulate the audience, swaying them to your side. We never really talked about the speaker’s emotions or what they might feel about a topic. I remember feeling satisfied with a presentation if I remained cool and collected. If my heartbeat stayed steady the whole time I presented my case – even if recounting heartbreaking stories – I was winning. 

My emotions tended to flare up most when I researched and argued on behalf of an issue that didn’t align with conservative Evangelicalism. I almost always ended up truly believing I was on the right side of the debate and became frustrated when that ultimately didn’t matter. Nearly all these debates were intellectual exercises about real-life issues that affected real people. It didn’t seem like anyone felt more compassionate after the school day ended. 

The more I learned about other views on my own without the filter of a teacher’s perspective, the more understanding I became. The black-and-white ‘God-or-Satan’ mentality started to blur. 

For anyone who grew up in fundamentalist (or fundamentalist-lite) Christianity, they know just how significant this blurring is. We’re told it’s a sign of spiritual weakness. It’s a sign that we’ve become vulnerable to the influences of Satan and worldliness. Our questioning is often dismissed as just wanting to fit in with a secular crowd. I still had that belief in my mind, so I resisted my heart’s softening. I tried not to think too hard about the beliefs I was espousing because once I did, I knew I would question them. I wouldn’t be able to ignore the paradox of a creed that preaches the concepts of mercy and love, but punishes and exiles anything (and anyone) it perceives as “sinful.” 

Eventually, I couldn’t deny the paradox. It took a lot of personal pain and acknowledging the pain of others to realize that “standing your ground” on beliefs can be incredibly destructive. Changing my worldview is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Strangely enough, the narrative many churches sell is that sticking to the ‘straight and narrow’ path is what’s truly difficult. Supposedly, only “good Christians” can do it. In my experience, the opposite is true. It’s much easier and more comfortable to walk the same road you’ve always walked, not questioning what you’ve believed your whole life. Taking a step off that path, to walk in someone else’s shoes…that’s hard. 

Many Christians consider themselves “good” Christians if they don’t change their mind on issues. They’re admired for their steadfastness and commitment to a very specific set of beliefs. What I see is people who are numb to the experiences of others.

If a Christian truly values love – which is considered greater than both faith and hope – they would be constantly wrestling with their beliefs. They would be acutely sensitive to the pain of others, especially pain inflicted in the name of Jesus. If there’s a hint that a certain belief might be harmful, every Christian should be willing to reconsider their stance. 

There are many, many Christians who are wrestling, who are tender, and who are prioritizing compassion over being “correct.” They are often punished for it.

As someone’s beliefs shift, they are often shunned and even threatened by mainstream Christianity. The attacks on Jo Luehmann, a Colombian-American writer, is a horrifying example of Christian-led abuse. Blogger Libby Anne over at “Love, Joy, Feminism” describes what happened in her post “Christian Gatekeeping 2020.” 

In June of this year, Jo responded to a hateful comment by a man claiming that colonization was excusable because indigenous people needed Jesus. Jo called that belief out for what it is: white supremacy. In her words, “all hell broke loose.” Christian accounts with big followings – including Adam Ford, founder of Babylon Bee – started mocking Jo, who had a relatively small following. She started to get hundreds of DMs from these accounts’ followers. Most of the messages were abusive. These self-professed Christians also began reporting all of Jo’s social media accounts as “hate speech.” She was locked out of her Twitter and Instagram for a time. I’ve seen some of the comments people are still making. They include death threats. This is how far efforts to squash uncomfortable discussions and beliefs can go. Christians who aren’t willing to entertain the idea that they may be wrong are trying to scare Jo into silence. They’ve not been successful. 

Christians like Jo Luehmann, Rachel Held Evans, and Nadia Bolz-Weber are the reason I called myself a “Christian” for so long. Voices like theirs give me hope that the worldview that defined my childhood and teenage years won’t go unchallenged in the future. On my journey, however, I’ve left the label “Christian” behind. I don’t know what I believe about Christ. All I know is that I’m softening. I know a lot of people from my past – the teachers, pastors, and classmates – would look at me and feel pity. They might see me as a cautionary tale. More likely than not, they don’t think about me at all. 

Worldview-wise, I don’t know where I’m going. I have one guiding principle: if my beliefs aren’t making me more compassionate to the suffering and experiences of others – especially the most vulnerable and marginalized – I need to question my beliefs.

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still + small

They told me I must be small

I must diminish so He could grow 

Their voices overwhelmed me

A cloud suffocating by day

A fire burning at night

I grew still and small

Waiting to be saved

 

I must decrease so He can increase

 

They taught me my spirit was defiant

I must tame my darkness so He could shine

Their voices sliced me down 

I cut off the pieces

That made me too wild

I pruned and trimmed my branches

Waiting to be whole

 

The tree You cursed has withered

 

Then I ran

I turned over their tables, exiled from their temples

They told me the further I fled

The unhappier I would be

 

They lied, and does not the Lord detest lying lips? 

 

Still and small, my spirit survives

Scarred and sacred, she still sings.

Book Review: Pure by Linda Kay Klein

*content warning: general descriptions of trauma and anxiety*

I read this book in two days. I couldn’t put it down. What’s so engaging about it is that the author is intimately linked to her subject. Born and raised into purity culture, she suffered the same shame and traumas that the women she interviews did. She even grew up with some of them and experienced the exact same messaging. I don’t know if I’ve read a book of this kind before where the author is so much a part of it.

I’m thinking about this book at a strange time in my life. After losing my dog Yoshi, one of the great loves of my life, it was like the ground beneath me shifted. Things I had buried for years and that have been knocking on the door for months refused to be ignored a second longer. I’ve finally had to acknowledge that I do not feel safe in my own body. I’ve had to acknowledge that my very first memory – a strange, shrouded memory of some kind of physical trauma –  is still haunting me. It guides my sexuality, my anxiety, and how I feel in my own skin.

The extent to which this has affected my experience with purity culture isn’t clear. The big thing I’ve been thinking about is my first serious relationship back in high school. I was physically anxious constantly. I analyzed every little physical thing, feeling both intrigued and terrified. Because of purity culture, I believed that the warning signals going off were from God. If my boyfriend touched my leg or I stroked his hand, trigging a flight response in me, I thought it was God telling me what we were doing was wrong. Now, I know that isn’t the case. Because purity culture saw repressed sexuality as a virtue, it allowed me to ignore signs that something else was wrong for a very long time.

This book also made me feel very relieved. I’m not the only one who feels confusion and anger. Even with deconstruction and transformed beliefs, the women in “Pure” still struggle with the messages engrained at an impressionable age. In my head, I believe that “purity” is a false construct, but in my body and heart, there’s a battle going on. With me, there’s an added layer – that early physical trauma – that complicates things.

Basically, purity culture isn’t the end-all-be-all for my array of issues, but it played a strong supporting role. At certain times in my life, it played a starring role. I recommend “Pure” for anyone who needs to feel that they aren’t alone in dealing with the fallout from purity culture, and for anyone who wants to understand what purity culture does to people.

Purity culture isn’t a relic of the past. It’s alive and well in many communities, and I anticipate a strong backlash from the mainstream church in response to people telling their stories. That’s usually what ends up happening when the church gets called out. Thankfully, there are churches and spiritual communities that are different and willing to listen. They will also need to be vocal. It’s time for a change.

To Rachel

Rachel Held Evans (1981-2019)

I really wish I didn’t have to write this. I wish I was reading a post on your blog about a miraculous recovery and a joyful return home. Instead, you went to your eternal home, leaving behind Dan, two kids, your family, your friends, and people like me. Your readers, who never got to meet you, to tell you in person what your writing meant. I know that you know, your eyes have been opened in ways I can’t even imagine, but in my limited perspective, I’m sad that I didn’t get to tell you.

But now, I don’t even know what I would say. I’ve been trying to think of something for over 24 hours, sitting with my journal in front of me, sitting outside staring at the trees, sitting on my bed at midnight staring at the wall. I dreamed about you when I fell asleep this afternoon, too tired to process my feelings. Even then, I didn’t know what to say, except something to the effect of “You get me.”

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I think that’s ultimately what made me love you right off the bat, when I read your first book with its original title, “Evolving in Monkeytown,” the copy that has my mom’s name written in the front because she was the one who gave it to me. You were close with your mom, too, and even though you didn’t always agree with each other, there was always unconditional love. When I read your book, it felt like meeting a new friend. The conversation you wrote about with your college friend, about how you were unable to accept that God would damn people who happened to born just a handful of years after the resurrection of Jesus, who had no way of knowing His name. I think the phrase you used was, “How could they be responsible for that information?” That really stuck with me, and really made me question my beliefs about heaven and hell, which used to keep me up at night with anxiety. Now, I see God as eager to give grace, overgenerous with it. Thank you.

When “Searching For Sunday” came out, I was so excited I bought an ebook copy, because I couldn’t wait till the physical copy got cheap enough or came to the library. Like you, I had stopped going to church and was at a loss about how to make my way back. Though our journeys were very different and you found your way sooner than me, you gave me hope that I could find a safe place. I actually started going to a church and that was the first thing that struck me, that I felt safe there. I don’t know what the future looks like, but I know you would be encouraging and happy for me, for everyone who is searching for a spiritual home and community.

I read “Inspired” not long ago, and it didn’t resonate with me as much as your other books. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s just because we were in different places. It did give me a glimpse in your love of stories and it made me smile that you took every opportunity to write in different styles, whether it was a short story, poem, or choose-your-own adventure. I wonder if you would have ever dipped into trying fiction if you had the chance. Thinking about what might have been is too hard. It makes me heart shrivel between my ribs.

I almost got to see you in person. You were scheduled to preach at a church in Minnesota, so Chris and I went to the service. The pastor got up and told us you and Dan had been too ill with a stomach bug to come. I was disappointed and because of church anxiety, we ended up leaving. “I’ll have another chance to see her,” I told myself. “It’s not like she’s going anywhere.”

Even though I didn’t know you personally, we were kindred spirits. It hurts that you’re gone, and there will be so many times in the future where I wish we had your voice. I’m jealous of heaven. I know I’ll see you someday. Your friends and family will see you, too, which is more important. I can distract myself easily if I need to, and I know this grieving process for me will probably be pretty brief. It will go on for your family, though, and thankfully the comforting and supportive messages will outweigh the negative ones, but there will be negative ones. You shook the world, the pillars of the system, and there will be people who will take the chance to call you all kinds of names, like a heretic. I hope you wear the name with pride, because if being a heretic means choosing love over fear and condemnation, and being eager to give grace and understanding, we should all aspire to be heretics.

drawn to the wild

For 2019, I didn’t want to just write a list of goals. Don’t get me wrong, I have those, too, like creating more original recipes, exercising for 30 minutes every day, and reading 40 books. I want something more representative of the journey I’ve been taking with my spiritual director, as well. One quote kept coming to mind. It’s from a Canadian poet whose true identity people aren’t sure about. His name is Atticus, and he always wears a full face mask when he performs. That’s the kind of mystique young people adore, and he has a huge following on Instagram. Here’s the poem snippet that’s been speaking to me:

Love her, but leave her wild. 

I’ve been afraid of my emotions for a long time. In the depths of depression, my emotions were scary, dark creatures that flooded my mind with despair. When I was involved with charismatic Christianity and its intense prayer style, my emotions would become overwhelming and I would feel like I wasn’t in control of my body. People would say it was either demons or the Holy Spirit manifesting, though I could never be sure which was which, so I suppressed any strong feeling just to be safe. Even my anger has been censored by society, my family, and my own sense of what’s “appropriate” or “Christ-like.” I don’t like crying in front of people because I don’t want anybody to see me lose control. I’m afraid of their reaction.

This year, I’m resolving to be wild. I am the “her” in Atticus’ poem. My emotions are big, so I’m going to let them be big. I can hear other voices expressing hesitation, saying that people won’t understand, that there will be consequences for these type of emotions. I know that. When I say “leave her wild,” I don’t mean I’m going to blurt out every single feeling that crosses my heart. I mean that I’m going to let myself feel it. That could mean expressing them in some way, but it could also mean just keeping it to myself. I won’t always nurture my feelings in the best way, but I’m done with censorship and trying to tame the fire.

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The other quote that keeps rising to the surface is a song lyric from Audrey Assad’s “Drawn To You.” My relationship with God is complicated and I’m still not over a lot of past experiences with the church. Chris and I even tried establishing a spiritual community of our own, and it blew up in our faces. However, I’m still seeking. I always have. There’s something that pulls me back over and over again. This year, I’ll be trying to find a church community. I’ve been in two churches and didn’t run for the hills. That’s progress.

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New Season

I’m at the point in my life where I’m considering going back to church.

Shocking, I know, but it isn’t just about me. If it was, honestly, I would probably never be the kind of person who gets up on Sunday morning. Just thinking about it makes me kind of queasy. I’m definitely not there yet, but I’m going to make it a goal to work on with my spiritual director. Why? It’s important to Chris.

He’s a church boy. He gets up super early every Sunday and does the soundboard for the service. He wants to go to groups. It’s such a big part of his life, and it’s been slowly separating us from each other. It’s not like he’s been pressuring me, but it’s still something we aren’t sharing.

We went to a Christian concert a little while ago, and it was in a church. I felt kind of weird walking in, but I didn’t feel the need to rush out. The music was really good, which was the only reason I went, and even a bit “edgy” for the crowd. I’m pretty sure Chris was the only man doing any kind of movement. Danny Gokey was the headliner and at one point, he started talking about new seasons. Chris and I feel like we’re moving into a new season, and if I try going back to church and groups, that will definitely be new to me.

I’m faced with a question though: how can a new season start in places that are so familiar, in a negative way? Churches, generally, all feel and look the same, especially the ones Chris goes to. They even smell the same. How can something good and new come from that? I know, I know, God can do anything, he makes all things new, yadda yadda, but I still have to get my ass through the doors. My mind knows it’s not the same place, but my body is trained well. It’s hard work to retrain the thing. Even going to a different church isn’t really an option, because I’ve been to so many, there isn’t a church environment I haven’t seen or experienced. All of the “sets” have memories attached to them. And I’m not going to ask Chris to change churches just because one might not provoke as much of a trigger for me. Arg, the things we do for love.

I’ve basically decided to not expect miracles, but if one happens, awesome. Church isn’t going to suddenly become this amazing, transformative experience, but it doesn’t have to be the place I dread most, either. I would be fine being okay sitting through a service and finding my real spiritual fulfillment through other channels. I do still want a group, that’s more important than services, and I believe that’s something I deserve. That’s where I really need a new season.

Five

A big part of my spiritual “therapy,” I guess you’d call it, has been identifying and focusing on my “safe places.” These are the sensations and states of being that make me feel closest to God. When they’re cultivated, I can think about trauma and ground myself in safety, so I’m not disrupted by painful memories. I’ve found five safe places:

Yoshi
Chris
Walking
Nature
Floating in the ocean in Jamaica

I experience different aspects of God in these places. With Yoshi, I feel adored and significant. With Chris, I am accepted, respected, and loved. While walking, I am strong, free, and flexible. In nature, I am free, rooted, grounded, and open, like the opposite of claustrophobic. When I remember floating in the Jamaican water, I am completely at peace, held, and still.

My spiritual director pointed out that it’s interesting that there are five things, like fingers on a hand. I immediately thought of the book title, “The heart is a muscle the size of your fist.” It’s a novel about protests and I haven’t actually read it, but the phrase sticks with me. In my head, I connect a fist or a hand with the heart. The key to spiritual fulfillment is to hold the Five within myself at all times, so no matter where I go or what I experience, I can rely on them. To help get a visual sense, I painted a picture:

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Each color represents a different part of the Five, and they all seep into one another and come from the heart. The heart has cracks from my traumatic experiences, but that’s where the color bleeds from.

The Five represent my essence. When I feel stressed or conflicted about something, disturbed by a past memory or triggering event, I’ve been turning back to whatever part of the Five best supports me. Sometimes it’s lying outside on the deck with Yoshi, looking up at the trees, just listening to the sound of the leaves. Other times it’s going for a walk without my headphones and just really focusing on each step, letting my arms move, breathing more deeply. In the past, I would focus too much on what was bothering me. I would run it back through my head over and over again, writing it down, picking it apart, analyzing it. That process has led to revelations, but I’m tired of it. One of the reasons why I didn’t want to go back to regular counseling was because I felt like I would have to rehash all the things wrong with me again. My spiritual director isn’t so interested in the details of things. It’s more about how memories and experiences fit into the bigger picture of what I believe about God, myself, and others. Most importantly, it’s about moving forward and not letting trauma define me. She’s all about “respecting” the trauma and having compassion towards it – it’s not as if I’m denying the impact of anything – but healing comes from immersion in the Five, not the trauma itself.

What are your safe places?

 

Caught in Tangles

So, I set fires of starlight
To burn up against the despair
I was caught in the tangles of midnight’s
Long, unanswered prayer:
‘Are you there?’

Matthew Perryman Jones/”O Theo” 

In the past, self-reflection was my thing. I spent most of life facing inward. While it meant I was lonely a lot, I knew myself really well. I always knew where I stood with God, how I felt about Him. That’s changed.

Self-reflection gets exhausting. After years and years, I’ve sort of given up. Being self-aware and monitoring my feelings used to be necessary for survival, but now that I’m in a good place with my mental health, it isn’t a necessity. I prefer to fill my mind’s space with work, writing, art, movies, TV…anything but thinking about God and where I stand. Why? I think I’m scared of what I’ll learn. After giving up on our small group, I kind of gave up on believing I’ll belong somewhere spiritually. For the group, I forced myself to fit in as much as I could, but it felt incredibly fake. Talking about the Bible or praying was phony. Questions like, “What motivates you to read the Bible?” felt stupid when an honest answer for me would be, “Nothing does. So I don’t.” The idea of going to church still makes me want to run away screaming.

So, why am I googling spiritual directors? Why am I looking for songs on Good Friday that stir something – anything – inside me? Something feels off. I can’t say that I feel “a God-shaped hole,” because, again, that has a fake taste. It’s too cliche. I feel like a picture that’s off-center, or a floor with a slight slope in the middle. It’s Good Friday, and it isn’t like I feel guilty, or that I “should” feel something. It’s more like when you touch a hot stove and don’t feel anything, you know something is wrong. It isn’t guilt that takes you to the doctor, it’s necessity.

I just have a lot of questions, and I need someone to help me answer them.

Disconnect

So, I left my small group. Yes, the one I started. It wasn’t because of the people – I love the people, and I’m not just saying that. I plan on staying friends with them, and doing fun stuff like hikes and night markets. When it came to the discussion part, though, there was a big disconnect.

They all go to church. One is even a pastor, for God’s sake. I don’t have a problem with that, it’s probably good to be close to people who are secure in their faith and place in the Christian community, but I’m the only one who isn’t. Like, not even close. I went to a Christmas Eve service, and I had to leave and sit in the lobby. Everything about it just made me want to run. The setup of the stage reminded me of my old church, and that brought on waves of sadness at how that community imploded and betrayed me. When the pastor started talking and using phrases like, “Forgiveness isn’t something you can buy on Amazon Prime,” I wanted to roll my eyes all the way back in my head. I got really hot, and walked around outside. It was raining, and the chill felt refreshing. I am not ready to go back to church. I have absolutely no desire to be ready.

I’m not optimistic about finding people who share my experiences. A lot of people who have had traumatic spiritual experiences just end up cutting all of it out their lives. I’m weirdly in-between, where I’ve cut out church and the conservative bent of Evangelicalism, but I do want friends who love Jesus. I’m desperate for people who will hear about I used to read the Bible because I believed if I didn’t, demons would overpower me, and really understand, because they’ve walked that walk. People who have had serious doubts about God’s goodness because at times it seems that mental illness has stolen every dream. Maybe I’m asking for too much.

Mike Pence Is Quiet, But He’s Dangerous

During a meeting with a legal scholar, President Trump, VP Pence, and the scholar started talking about gay rights. Trump pointed to Pence and said, “Don’t ask that guy – he wants to hang them all!”

There’s a lot that’s disturbing about this statement. Joking about the deaths of LGBT people – a group that’s been experiencing record numbers of violence – is yet another example of Trump’s total disregard for the issue. The other thing that’s disturbing is that it proves Pence has not budged on his defining quality – hostility towards the LGBT community.

In 2006, Pence supported a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and woman. He didn’t stop there however, but said that being gay was a choice and accepting it into society would lead to its collapse.

Just a year later, he opposed a law that would make discriminating against LGBT people in the workplace illegal. Apparently, not being allowed to fire people because you don’t agree with their sexual identity “wages war on freedom and religion.”

In 2010, Pence wanted to keep Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which forced military personnel from identifying opening as gay. His reasoning? He didn’t want the military to be a “backdrop for social experimentation.” That’s a really confusing reason because it isn’t like there haven’t been gay people in the military. How is letting soldiers be open and honest about their lives back home an “experiment?”

In 2015, Pence made his name known nationwide when he signed a bill that would let Indiana businesses use their religion to refuse service to LGBT customers. I’ve heard conservatives talk a lot about “slippery slopes” when it comes to issues like gun control, but letting business owners refuse service because of a customer’s sexual identity is EXTREMELY slippery. It’s also just plain ol’ discrimination. To Pence, it might make sense because he thinks being gay is a choice, but he’s wrong, and you don’t get to make laws based on lies. That’s a slippery slope.

The most troubling thing about Pence, in my opinion, is his support for conversion therapy. He hasn’t been outspoken about it, because he knows it’s controversial, but when he was running for Congress, he suggested that federal money that was being used to research HIV/AIDS would be better diverted to “provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”

Um, what? That would be “conversion therapy,” which is derided by the American Psychological Association and has a long history of misconduct, including lobotomies, electroshock, testicle transplants, castration, female circumcision, drugs, and verbal abuse. While methods have changed, the goal is the same: convince someone their sexual orientation is wrong and needs to be “straightened out.”

Conversion therapy is banned in a handful of states, but it’s not banned on a federal level. I heard someone say that being gay was “protected and celebrated” in America, like it was a bad thing, and I had to laugh. What groups are ones that need to be protected? Ones that are in danger. And what are some reasons to celebrate being gay? When it’s been stomped down for decades and told it’s destroying society, perhaps? A celebration is simply telling a person, “You’re not bad. There’s nothing wrong with you. We love you.”

Pence wants a world where every LGBT person believes there’s something inherently wrong with them; that because of the evil in their souls, they’ve “chosen” a dark path and need to be “converted.” He ignores every personal story and every sound piece of medical research on the subject, and instead chooses to uphold outdated and hateful misconceptions on what sexual orientation is, and what life is actually like for LGBT people.

Pence may be quiet, but he’s dangerous. And unlike Trump, Pence has a lot of people on his side.